Beloved Homer poet, scientist dies

This story has been updated to add information about a memorial reading at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Kachemak Bay Campus.

Like a tsunami that sucks sea beyond shore, most in Alaska’s tightly knit literary community knew the wave of cancer holding Eva Saulitis in its grip would eventually pull her under.

Just before 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, at her home with family present, Saulitis, 52, died “incredibly gracefully,” her partner, Craig Matkin, said.

In the wake of her death, writers and teachers praised Saulitis as a scientist, poet, writer and instructor.

“It’s a profound loss,” said Carol Swartz, director of the Kachemak Bay Campus and the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, where Saulitis taught. “She really touched an incredible number of lives through her teaching here.”

Poet Peggy Shumaker, Saulitis’ editor at Boreal Books, praised her for being one of the first writers to combine scientific and artistic writing. Shumaker first met Saulitis when she was a student in the master of fine arts creative writing program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“I can tell you that her death leaves an enormous void,” Shumaker said. “We are really fortunate to have her books and the resonance of her voice.”

Homer writer Rich Chiappone said Saulitis was highly respected by writers from Alaska to New York.

“They just adored her,” he said. “She was first class, a world-class writer.”

Saturday afternoon, news rippled across social media announcing Saulitis’ death as people across Alaska and the United States posted memories.

“Pretty quickly you could see the breadth and depth she had touched the people she had worked with and read her work,” said Erin Hollowell, a fellow Homer poet.

Saulitis herself had written about her breast cancer in the Homer News and other publications. In 2010 she was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. When her third book, “Into Great Silence,” came out in March 2013, she told the Homer News she was cancer free. That summer her cancer came back and doctors told her the disease would be terminal.

“For her, she wrote her way through it,” Matkin said. “She wrote her way from the fear and disbelief and anger through grace and acceptance.”

In the five years after her diagnosis, Saulitis threw herself into a frenzy of intense, introspective creativity, writing four books of poetry and nonfiction: “Many Ways to Say It,” 2012; “Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss among Vanishing Orcas,” 2013; “Prayer in Wind,” 2015, and “Becoming Earth,” to be published in 2017. She wrote her first book, “Leaving Resurrection,” in 2008.

“I tell you one thing, getting a death notice — it makes you get on your horse and ride,” Matkin said. “It makes you pay attention to the moment.”

“You know what? We should all write like that every day. We all are dying every day,” Hollowell said. “We think we’ve got extra time. Not really. We don’t know.”

Saulitis was born May 10, 1963, at the Jewish Memorial Hospital in The Bronx, New York, the third of four children to Asja Ivins and Janis Saulitis. They were Latvian refugees who met in a displaced persons camp in Germany and then reunited and married in the United States, said Saulitis’ younger sister, Dr. Mara Liebling. 

The family eventually moved from The Bronx to Silver Creek, N.Y., where Eva lived from the age of 4 until going off to college. Saulitis has two older brothers, Andy and John. Liebling said she and her siblings all grew up speaking Latvian. 

In 2006, Saulitis got a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Grant to live and write in Latvia.

Her sister initially wanted to be a professional musician and studied oboe at Northwestern University, Chicago, but switched to science, Liebling said. She got a bachelor of science at the Syracuse School of Environmental Science and Forestry, New York.

 “She realized how little time she would be spending out in nature,” Liebling said of Saulitis’ decision to leave music. “The thing that was important to her was being outdoors, in the natural world.”

Saulitis came to Alaska in 1986 to work at a fish hatchery in Prince William Sound. She met Matkin in 1987 when she started working with him studying orca whales for his research company, the North Gulf Oceanic Society.

She would work with Matkin for more than 20 years studying transient killer whales, and became an expert on the AT1 killer whale group, what Saulitis called the Chugach transient whales. Those whales, and their demise from the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, became the subject of “Into Great Silence.”

Saulitis wrote “Into Great Silence” after her cancer diagnosis.

“I asked myself, ‘If you only had five years left, what would you regret not doing?’” she told the Homer News in 2013. “The number one thing that came into my head was, ‘You’ve got to write this book.’”

Saulitis got a master of science in zoology from UAF in 1993. Matkin said as a scientist Saulitis had incredible powers of observation.

“That’s why she was such a good writer. She was such an observer of human behavior, of animal behavior,” he said.

Saulitis became dissatisfied with science writing, feeling it was too one dimensional, Liebling said. To tell the story of killer whales, “she needed to write, and not just as a scientist, but as a creative writer,” Liebling said.

That lead to a second master’s degree, an MFA from UAF in 1996. Saulitis impressed her as a writer from the start, Shumaker said.

“She was one of those people you show her the tools and you get out of her way,” she said. “She was immensely talented.”

Saulitis moved to Homer in 1999. She started teaching composition and creative writing at KBC in 1999. One of her students, Kyra Wagner, said at first she was intimidated by Saulitis, “this goddess of a teacher.”

“She always created an atmosphere of mentoring that was incredibly empowering of her students,” Wagner said.

Miranda Weiss took her first writing class with Saulitis. She said Saulitis encouraged her to get an MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts and also showed her how she could be a scientist writer and a poet biologist.

“And she introduced me to the power and infinite possibilities of the personal essay,” Weiss said.

“Eva put a lot of energy into really listening,” said artist Jo Going, a close friend. “That’s why she was a good teacher. She would listen and think deeply and respond.”

Saulitis taught at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference from its start in 2002, missing only the 2013 year because of illness. She also helped plan the conference. Chiappone recalled one heart-breaking moment at a planning meeting where he asked Saulitis about what panel she would do in June.

“She just looks at me and puts her hand on me like I’m a dummy, and said, ‘Rich, I won’t be there,’” he said.

It’s in that dying that Saulitis leaves her final legacy. Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press edited by Shumaker, published a limited edition run of “Becoming Earth” late in 2015. Saulitis signed copies, Shumaker said.

“Becoming Earth” is a meditation on wildness, cancer and dying. Poet Naomi Shihab Nye, the keynote speaker at the 2013 Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, called “Becoming Earth” a “most astonishing, unflinchingly honest book.”

“(It) could be one of the greatest testaments to life and care, fragility and strength, our own humble bodies in the giant weave of the World’s Great Body of Being, I have ever read,” Shihab Nye wrote in an email. “She is my hero.”

The Kachemak Bay Campus will hold a memorial reading of Saulitis’ work at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29, at the Kachemak Bay Campus. People are invited to bring a short excerpt of her prose or poetry to read. Please bring potluck finger foods to share.

Matkin said a celebration of Saulitis’ life will be held at a time and place to be announced in May. Saulitis was preceded in death by her parents. She is survived by her siblings and their spouses, Andrew and Kathy Saulitis of Darien, Conn., John and Susie Saulitis of Mineral Ridge, Ohio; and Mara and Jon Liebling of Bainbridge Island, Wash.; her life partner, Craig Matkin; her stepchildren, Elli and Lars Matkin, and Eve Kilcher; step-grandchildren Findlay and Sparrow Kilcher; and several nieces and nephews.